Asteroid City
Picture of Derrick Dunn

Derrick Dunn

Asteroid City will please Wes heads young and old

Acclaimed filmmaker Wes Anderson assembles another all-star cast for his eleventh feature film, Asteroid City, from Focus Features. The film starts perplexingly in the titular fictional town in the late fifties. We met an anthology host portrayed by Bryan Cranston (efficiently channeling Ray Bradbury and Rod Steiger), who lets us know the movie we are watching is a cinematic take on an ongoing play. There’s a framing story about Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), a playwright looking for his next hit, and his stage director Schubert Green (Adrian Brody).

Earp and Green have developed a new project in a fictional town called Asteroid City. This town is a renowned destination for young and old astrology aficionados. The place is in a desert where a meteorite crash-landed thousands of years ago. This has sparked an enduring interest among American scientists and enthusiasts in space exploration. However, an unexpected event occurs during their visit, forcing a compulsory quarantine of the town.

Anderson employs his proven method for bringing together a skilled cast in Asteroid City. Wes Anderson has gained loyal devotion from actors over the last twenty years. These actors are highly sought after by other filmmakers. His latest features a mix of old and new faces. In Asteroid City, we meet the characters Augie Steenbeck (played by Jason Schwartzman) and his family, including his intelligent teenage son named Woodrow (played by Jake Ryan), his three daughters (Ella Faris, Gracie Faris, and Willan Faris), and his father-in-law Stanley (played by Tom Hanks).

Other characters in Asteroid City include Midge Campbell, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, a famous actress, and her daughter, Grace Edwards. The film explores several themes, including a potential love interest between Augie and Midge. It has a unique sadness uncommon in movies about extraterrestrial encounters. All the film’s big-name talent and Anderson regulars generally get a moment to shine. 

However, I found the most investment in the performances of talented character actors like Jeffrey Wright and Tilda Swindon. Wright plays the character of General Griff Gibson, while Swinton portrays astronomer Dr. Hickenlooper in the fictional town that is currently under quarantine.  

Similar to past works, Asteroid City will primarily appear to Wes Heads. I greatly admire Wes Anderson’s style, but I seldom rewatch his films except Isle Of Dogs. He is conscious that his movies cater to a specific audience. I realized this during my conversation with my son after we watched the press screening. 

The complex meta frame in Anderson’s latest work won’t appeal to the general public who seeks uncomplicated entertainment in the summer movie seasons. In the movie, the characters, at one point, begin to question their own decisions and the motives behind their actions and words. They wonder why everything in this strange and artificial world seems insincere, unrealistic, and irrational. 

When the trailer for Asteroid City was first released, it seemed like a typical atomic-age alien-invasion movie. However, director Anderson’s artistic vision becomes apparent after watching the film. The black-and-white introduction starring Bryan Cranston sets a tone for a thought-provoking experience that goes beyond special effects. Although some suggest that Anderson should have aimed for mainstream appeal, his commitment to substance over style is evident throughout the film.”

There is a pivotal moment in the second half where Asteroid City comes alive in a moody yet celebratory way – proof that Anderson can make magic happen organically without relying on cheap thrills. This film is true to Anderson’s style and message, making it a fine addition to his impressive filmography.

 

Final Grade: B

Asteroid City expands this Friday.

After making a promising debut with Monster, director Anthony Mandler returns with his sophomore feature, Surrounded from MGM. Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas pen the film’s screenplay. 

Five years after the Civil War, freedwoman and former Buffalo Soldier Moses “Mo” Washington (Leticia Wright) travels west to lay claim to a gold mine, the summation of years of toil for Mo and her community. It is a mean, dangerous world for an unaccompanied Black woman in 1870 America, so Mo travels into the deep frontier disguised as a man. 

Following a brutal attack by a gang of violent thieves on her stagecoach, Mo must take the notorious outlaw Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell) captive. The other surviving passengers entrust Mo with the responsibility of detaining Walsh while they seek help. As they both struggle to survive in the harsh Western terrain, a power struggle ensues between Mo and Walsh, blurring the lines of who is the captor and who is the captive. Things take another turn, though, when Walsh’s gang sets out to free him.

Using the film medium to tell the story of the old West through the eyes of a Black Woman isn’t a new concept, as the films Gang of Roses and The Harder They Fall explored it previously. Fresh off performances in the blockbuster Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and the indie The Silent Twins, Wright has her third starring role in twelve months.

Regretfully though, the film is the weakest of the three. Mandler and his scriptwriters craft a painfully slow film without memorable shootout scenes and waste its cast. The blame doesn’t fall squarely on Wright, in any case. Wright attempts to lift the material, but the material just isn’t there.

The usually reliable Jamie Bell and Jeffrey Donovan are both on autopilot for the entire film, delivering paycheck-style performances that reek of amateurish writing exercises from a first-year film student. Some of the film’s promotion will center around the fact that it is the final project of the esteemed late Michael K. Williams, which undoubtedly will garner significant interest.

Williams’s role is nothing more than a cameo as a character named The Stranger, who has a connection to Walsh. He delivers his monologue with great intensity in the brief moments he is on screen. While I understand that Williams’s death affected the final project, I wonder how much Williams’s character played in the script’s first draft.

When I was a child in the 1980s, Westerns were common in my home. I recall my grandfather watching reruns of Bonanza and Maverick. I developed an appreciation for Westerns as I grew older after watching films like Posse and Unforgiven. However, despite the director’s efforts to avoid racial stereotyping, I found the movie boring and know the cast and crew are capable of better.

Final Grade: C-

Surrounded is available on Digital, June 20th.

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Asteroid City will please Wes heads young and old

Asteroid City will please Wes heads young and old